Axe board helps find 'whack juice'

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Unilever people joke that they are notoriously late for meetings. But even by their standards, the advisory-board meeting start was legendary.

Set to begin with breakfast at 8:30 a.m. followed by discussion at 9, most board members arrived after 9 and some well after 10. Once settled in, they got down to business-describing their first kiss, including what music was involved.

A surprisingly common story line in a diverse group-spanning white suburban, Jewish, black, Latino and South American-is that girls were the aggressors, be it stolen kisses at elementary school water fountains or necking in stairwells and school buses. Music was rarely involved.

no effect yet

Nor was the Axe effect-which was the point of this first gathering of Unilever's new Axe advisory board, an effort to give the brand street cred via a group of urban-music managers, handlers and artists. The implicit deal: Give Axe entree into and feedback from one of pop culture's hottest realms, and in return get access to Unilever's marketing dollars and, should they want it, brand-management advice.

The heavy hitters convened for the first time at the posh Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Columbus Circle in midtown Manhattan on Oct. 6: MTV VJ and aspiring recording artist/actress Alani Vazquez (better known as La La); hip-hop diva Ciara; Idris Elba, who stars in HBO's "The Wire" (who also aspires to music stardom); Julius Erving III, manager of hip-hop group Floetry among others and son of NBA Hall-of-Famer Dr. J; Blue Williams (manager of Outkast); and Philana Williams, marketing director of Arista Records.

Most of the assembled rappers are users of Procter & Gamble Co.'s Old Spice, Revlon's Mitchum or Unilever's Degree. Despite Axe's wholesale $100 million-plus assault on pop culture to date, the brand has made little prior impact on the urban-music world.

"I'm confused," admitted La La. "Is it like a deodorant or a cologne?"

She's not alone. Axe has a deeply and intentionally nuanced functional position. "The answer is both," said David Rubin, senior brand-development manager for Axe. "For some, it's like a cologne. Others use it every day like a deodorant."

But the answer really is none of the above. Unilever wants Axe to transcend its category entirely. "Our ambition is to live in the world of brands like [Nike, MTV and Xbox]," Carlos Gil, brand-development director for Axe, told his newly assembled board, "not in the world of package goods. We want to live in the world of cool brands."

His PowerPoint presentation showed Axe has attained that status in Europe and South American markets. Clearly, however, it's still got a way to go with this group.

"I think right now, all Axe means to urban music and urban [youth] is that they make pretty cool and funny commercials," said Mr. Erving in an interview outside the meeting room. "A lot of people wouldn't even know that Axe was those funny commercials unless you specifically told them. ... It doesn't have 'whack juice' yet."

That juice is precisely what Axe wants from this board. "For the market you know so well, we're not real yet," admitted Mr. Rubin. "We brought you here to help us learn how to do it."

sneak peek

So the board got a sneak peek at one of those funny commercials, set to break in December, from William Gellner, group creative director at Axe agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty. And it will be previewing other Axe advertising in the future.

But mainly the board members will be advising their way into yet-undefined marketing deals. Mr. Rubin suggested sponsorships, event and cause marketing and product placement.

Axe's competitors are trying to tap popular culture, too, some more conventionally. Gillette's Right Guard launched Cool Spray this summer with TV ads from Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide, New York, featuring Xzibit, host of MTV's "Pimp My Ride."

"It's not about paying $1 million and sticking a celebrity in our advertising," said Axe's Mr. Rubin. The advisers agreed.

"You have to do it in a seamless way," said Mr. Erving. "It can't look like somebody was just cutting a check. We're not dealing with a dumb consumer."

"I think it's a mistake if you go after celebrities to sell products," said Kenny Burns, former VP of Roc-a-Fella Records who's now launching his own sportswear line. "You ride and die on their successes. ... I think reaching out to influencers and tastemakers is the key to their success in the popular-culture market." Personally, he's anticipating co-marketing Axe during such events as his Ryan Kenny line's recent appearance at Miami Fashion Week.

What's next for the board is really still unclear. But breakfast meetings won't be part of the deal. "This is the last time we'll be so structured," Mr. Rubin acknowledged. Board members have suggested the Turks & Caicos Islands or Puerto Rico for future gatherings, presumably with little or no PowerPoint.

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